No Borders: Struggling for a Global Commons

A general problem with the “immigration debate” is a widely shared assumption about the human practice of migration. For many, migration is always-already a problem: an aberrant form of behavior in need of “fixing.” Consequently, people’s mobility—especially across national borders—is seen as only ever caused by crisis and as only ever crisis producing. Their ideal view of the world is one in which people seldom, if ever, move and societies remain more or less “closed.”

Such a view belies the history of humanity. Historians, archaeologists, biologists, and the tales that people tell all point to the fact that across the world human beings have always moved and that they have done so for reasons not dissimilar to the reasons people move today. Yet, in what can be described as nationalist narratives, “the people” are seen as attached to particular lands in ways that are either primordial (so that people are portrayed as “rooted” to the land) or providential (some people were “destined” to be on certain lands). The invention of human sedentarism or doctrines of Manifest Destiny rests on problematic assumptions about what migration actually is and who engages in it.

"Migration Is Natural," reads this public art piece in Charlotte, North Carolina. Credit: Favianna Rodriguez.

In current debates over immigration, it is crucial to note that the debate is not actually about moving. Millions of people move about on a daily basis, however, only certain people are seen as “migrants.” Being seen as a “migrant” is not simply to do with length of stay: a tourist may only be resident for a short period, but then, so are some “temporary workers”; neither is it to do with employment—how many of us attending international NGO or academic conferences write down that we are present “for the purposes of employment” even though we are scarcely going for a holiday? Who counts as a migrant depends on who is doing the counting, and on the purpose of the counting. It is shifting and contradictory.

There are multiple ways and scales by which the figure of “the migrant” is imagined, defined, and represented (both in the abstract and in the particular). The figure is generally negatively gendered, racialized, and classed: U.S. financiers, Australian backpackers, and American “expats” are not, generally, constructed as migrants. It is not just the state, but a wide range of other actors, including local government, academia, the media, NGOs, trade unions, and the daily practices of individuals (both citizens and noncitizens) that work with and against each other to construct and identify who counts as a migrant.

However, one thing that all these constructions have in common is that the constitution of “the migrant” is nation-state-centric. One might move thousands of miles or only a few feet but whether one is seen to be migrating or not ultimately rests on whether one has crossed a nationalized boundary. Hence, working with the often racialized and gendered understanding of who constitutes a national subject, the legal meaning of migrant rests on the idea of the “foreigner.”

The “foreigner” is a very special figure in the global systems of capitalism and national states. Today, the foreigner is someone who can be legally (and often socially) denied most, if not all, of the rights associated with membership in a national state (and the associated ideological understanding of membership in a nation). Mobility controls are largely directed at “managing” the movement of foreigners. However, it is important to recognize that in the initial period when regulations on people’s mobilities were put into place in the emergent global system, it was people’s movement out of the realms of rulers that was the main concern.

Early controls on mobility were very much related to the creation and maintenance of a proletariat (that is, a commodified workforce) for (at the time, nascent) capitalists. For example, the original Poor Laws in England (from at least 1536 until the end of WWII) were designed both to control the mobility of persons fleeing the privatized commons and to coerce those classified as “vagabonds” into working. As states developed, controls of the movement of the ruled were pushed to nationalized borders.

Graffiti scrawled in Spanish on the Mexico side of the U.S.-Mexico border wall declares that "borders are scars in the earth." Credit: Kate Morgan-Olsen.

Historically, coerced immobility acted to discipline the unruliness of the displaced in order to make them productive workers whose labor power could be exploited. Indeed, capturing and containing a potential workforce by compelling them into not moving was a key element in making early capitalist ventures possible. It is in part for this reason that early passports were designed to control people’s exits from, not their arrivals into, the territories controlled by various ruling groups. Mobility out of a particular space was defined as a major problem by and for those who needed a sedentary workforce. Thus, as Dimitri Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson, and Vasily Tsianos note in Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the Twenty-First Century (Pluro Press, 2008), “It is no coincidence that the word mobility refers not only to movement but also to the common people, the working classes, the mob.” It was this mob and their attempts to flee expropriation and exploitation that posed one of the greatest threats to the success of capitalism. And, it was, in part, their sedentarization that helped to ensure its success. The word “state” derives from “stasis” or immobility.

Relatedly, criminalizing people’s mobility and denying access to resources, services, and rights to those deemed to be illegally migrating and residing in a place was an important part of how the modern proletariat was formed. As today, it also served as a method for the creation of “cheap labour.” “Above all,” as Sucheta Mazumdar notes in “Localities of the Global: Asian Migrations between Slavery and Citizenship” (an article in the International Review of Social History), “new states and institutions marking borders and passports developed only after the slave trade ended” and in a context in which migrants and migrations continued to be shaped by the continuing legacy of slavery, apartheid, and diverse forms of unfree labor. In the context of the formerly colonized world, immigration controls, and the expelling of “nonindigenous” workers, as well as other forms of state-sponsored xenophobia, was a feature of many newly independent states. That people continued to move, despite strictures against their mobility, demonstrates the historical futility of border controls but it also demonstrates that, like today, an illegalized workforce was a boon to employers.

Another similarity to today’s world: those who moved without the state’s permission were represented as dangerous for the emerging world system, even though this same system was built on the making of distinctions between legal and illegal persons. Together, restrictions on mobility and the subordination of those who moved without permission worked to territorialize people’s relationship to space, to their labor, to their ability to maintain themselves, and their relationships with others. One’s wage rates, access to employment, to rights, to welfare benefits, to land, etc. were all bound to one’s recognized legal residence in particular spaces. Thus, through attempts at rendering people immobile, “bodies become territorialized; people become subjects of a specific territory, of a sovereign power,” as noted by Papadopoulos, Stephenson, and Tsianos. As rights and livelihoods were territorialized, so were people’s subjectivities. The result? We’ve got a world where nationalism is, as Benedict Anderson has noted, “the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time.”

Elements of a No Borders Approach

Since the creation of the very first illegalized person, whenever and wherever controls have been placed on people’s movements, they have been rejected. As William Walters comments in his essay “Acts of Demonstration: Mapping the Territory of (Non‑)Citizenship” (an article in Acts of Citizenship), “In certain respects the power of autonomous movement has been the hidden secret of the history of class struggle.” Some have offered a philosophical rejection of the limits to the human activity of migration. Others have rejected the territorialization of their subjectivity and their relationships. Still others have rejected attempts to make them live a life that has become untenable due to acts of expropriation, terror, and/or impoverishment. No set of border controls has ever worked to fully contain people’s desire and need to move. In this sense, it can be argued that an everyday practice of refusing the border has existed as long as borders have.

Activists at a No Borders Camp protest the U.S.-Mexico border. Credit: Creative Commons/Steve Hise.

A contemporary politics for No Borders can, nonetheless, be said to have emerged in the mid-1990s. It is marked by the re-politicization of the very legitimacy of (im)migration restrictions and the distinctions made between “national” or even “regional” or “continental” (e.g., “European”) subjects and their foreigners. What distinguishes a No Borders politics from other immigrant-rights approaches is their refusal to settle for “fairer” immigration laws (higher numbers, access to legal statuses, and so on). Within a No Borders politics, it is understood that the border-control practices of national states not only reflect people’s unequal rights (e.g., whose movements are deemed to be legitimate and whose are not) but also produce this inequality. Thus, their signal demand is for every person to have the freedom to move and, in this era of massive dispossession and displacement, the concomitant freedom to not be moved (i.e., to stay).

In this, a No Borders politics, far from reaffirming the significance of citizenship, even if it is understood “… not as an institution or a statute but a collective practice,” as Étienne Balibar contends in “What We Owe to the Sans-Papiers” (an article in Social Insecurity), calls into question the legitimacy of the global system of national states itself and the related global system of capitalism. In making these demands, a No Borders politics clarifies the centrality of border controls to capitalist social relations, relationships borne of—and still dependent on—practices of expropriation and exploitation.

No Borders politics show that social justice movements must not only “confront” the question of the border, they must reject borders that work to multiply both control devices and differentiated labor regimes. In so doing, they distinguish themselves from calls for open borders made by the political Right, calls that center on the availability of persons made mobile largely because of prior instances of dispossession and displacement. The Right’s call for open borders, thus, can be seen as a continuation, in new form, of the strategy of what David Harvey has called, “accumulation by dispossession.”

While most associated with events in Western Europe, a current No Borders politics also has its immediate predecessors in North America and is linked to prior movements for free mobility there. For instance, the popular No Borders cry that “No One Is Illegal” first arose against Operation Wetback, a 1954 US government program which resulted in over one million people being forced to leave the US for Mexico. The Sans Papiers in France, widely credited with first articulating a contemporary No Borders politics, gave new life to this slogan. Largely made up of migrants from Africa who found themselves categorized as “illegals,” the Sans Papiers began in 1996 by refusing to accept the right of the French state to control their lives by classifying them “paperless.” Their radical stance, and the outpouring of solidarity for them from people across the spectrum of state statuses (ranging from “citizen” to “illegal”), stood in marked contrast to the wide legitimacy given to Operation Wetback in the US and can be seen as part of the legacy of the Paris Uprising of 1968.

Part of the French state’s efforts to lessen the impact of this uprising was to begin deporting activists categorized as paperless. An important response to these deportations was captured in the slogan, “We are all foreigners.” That the slogan was not “We are all French” is significant and signals a kind of nascent No Borders rejection of having one’s subjectivity aligned with the national state by which one is governed.

The rejection of borders and the differences they make among people (as labourers and lovers, as comrades and classmates, etc.) comes from a shift in standpoint from one centred on citizens and “their” organizations or “their” state to one that begins from the standpoint of migrants themselves. The initial organizations of a movement for No Borders were led by migrants who insisted that migrants were legitimate political actors within national polities and did not want or need citizens’ groups to act as a cover for their activities. Such acts of autonomy brought back to people’s attention that, in the struggle for liberty, freedom, democracy, livelihoods, and more, one needed to act with, and not against, those defined as (im)migrants and foreigners. That is, that interests between people in these two categorical groups were shared rather than conflicting.

This painting, “Freedom from Fear” by Favianna Rodriguez, commemorates the many “ordinary people who have committed extraordinary acts of courage on behalf of immigrants and refugees -- individuals who have taken a risk, set an example, and inspired others to awareness or action,” according to the artist. Credit: Favianna Rodriguez.

The recognition and naming of people’s refusals to accept borders is of crucial importance in the light of the typical response to calls for No Borders: that it is utopian and impractical. This is often accompanied by what Phillip Cole calls the “catastrophe prediction.” This argues that No Borders would undermine equality and welfare protections within liberal democratic states and this would have an impact on the most marginalized and disadvantaged. It is also said that a lack of borders would also erode national identities and commitments to liberal democratic values. It is this dystopic vision that allows for either the consequent Hobbesian response (that states must be given sovereignty and the power to enforce compliance in the interests of citizens) or the related communitarian response (in which national state formations are defended on the grounds that democracy itself can flourish only if bounded with strong insides and outsides). In both scenarios, national sovereignty, although potentially unjust, is cast as a necessary evil.

This vision must be challenged. It has been countered by some through claims that a world without borders would not be altogether that different: not many people would move, migration has a very limited impact on labor markets, and non-migrants as well as citizens would continue to be able to enjoy the privileges of citizenship, even if they are somewhat diminished. We reject the politics of these sorts of arguments.

A radical No Borders politics acknowledges that it is part of revolutionary change. If successful, it will have a very profound effect on all of our lives for it is part of a global reshaping of economies and societies in a way that is not compatible with capitalism, nationalism, or the mode of state-controlled belonging that is citizenship. It is ambitious and requires exciting and imaginative explorations, but it is not utopian. It is in fact eminently practical and is being carried out daily.

This raises the question of what sorts of political communities are desirable, and we would suggest that one way of framing our responses to this could be by considering the struggle for the commons. Rather than simply demanding that the current global system of national states—and the equally global system of capitalism—re-tool itself to better distribute the wealth of our planet (as in the Network of Spiritual Progressives’ call for a Global Marshall Plan), the No Borders demand for the right to move/stay is not framed within a liberal (capitalist) praxis. The rights that a radical No Borders movement works for are not the rights of states, citizens, private property owners, or even the ambiguous and largely symbolic arena of human rights. Instead, the rights to move and to stay are understood as a necessary part of a contemporary system of common rights. Thus, while focused on realizing their demand for freedom of movement (which includes the freedom to not be moved), a No Borders politics can be seen as part of a broader, reinvigorated struggle for a global commons.

The rights held by commoners are the rights of persons. In contrast to the rights of property, consisting of the right to exclude others from enjoying that which has been privatized, the right of persons consists of the right to not be excluded. Thus, the right of persons is not something that is granted. Instead, it is an entitlement that each person carries in her/himself. To have the common right of persons entitles one to the resources of society. It includes the right to not be distinguished from others who also carry the common right of persons. We contend that it is this right of persons in the commons that alone can build the foundation by which to construct a society of equals.

Key to the realization of a commons is the nurturing of relationships of mutuality with fellow commoners. This requires the rejection of always-exclusionary identities of “race” and “nation” and the rejection of territorial state power and the sovereigns who wield it. Simultaneously, it requires the cultivation of a new sense of being, one that is in common with all others.

(This essay is excerpted and adapted from “Editorial: Why No Borders?” by Bridget Anderson, Nandita Sharma, and Cynthia Wright, which appeared in Refuge’s special issue on “No Borders As a Practical Political Project.” Volume 26, Issue 2, pp. 5-18. This web-only article is part of a special series on immigration associated with Tikkun’s Summer 2013 print issue, Away With All Borders: Embracing Immigration and Ending Deportation. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit to read the other online-only articles published so far in this series—we will continue to update that page as new articles come out.)


One thought on “No Borders: Struggling for a Global Commons

  1. I got half way through and gave up. Look the long and short of it is that people in this day and agen generally stay put. Even in ancient times there were those who settled and those who wandered. Egypt, Rome, Jerusalem all cities that consisted of citizens. Sure people moved around to follow trade, but people also stayed.

    The US need it’s borders secured because there are people who mean to do it harm. Society has evolved and has decided on a rule of law, which puts anyone who breaks the law in a terrible position.

    I am Latino and I know people who’ve come here legally and illegally. The ones who follow the rules seem to be more interested in continuing to follow the rules. The ones who start by breaking our laws usually compound that action by breaking other laws. I’ve seen it in practice so save me the statistics.